Key things to know
Mixing alcohol with other drugs can cause unpleasant and unpredictable effects.▼ What to expect
Eat before you drink alcohol.▼ Safer using
Count your standard drinks and know your limits.▼ Keep track
Have a plan to keep yourself safe while drinking (e.g. bringing condoms, organising your ride home).▼ Make a plan
What to expect
How does alcohol make you feel?
Alcohol is the most commonly used drug in New Zealand. All types of alcohol are depressants, meaning they slow down your body and brain.
The effects from alcohol are broad and can include feeling relaxed, giddy, confident, nauseous, drowsy or uncoordinated. It can make you say things or act in ways you normally wouldn’t when sober. This is called ‘disinhibition’.
The effects of alcohol start very quickly after drinking, sometimes within 10 minutes, with your blood alcohol level peaking about 30–90 minutes after drinking. The effects of alcohol will increase as you continue to drink and your body’s blood alcohol level increases. Remember, a low dose for one person can be a high dose for another as people’s bodies process drugs differently.
Keep in mind that, when mixed with other drugs or prescription medications, alcohol can have different effects to those listed below.
A Reddit user explains what getting drunk feels like to them:
“It feels fun, you feel less inhibited and more in the moment. Also, you don’t realise it when you’re acting stupid.”
Skin flushing (rosy/red skin)
Making risky decisions or judgements
More drowsy or groggy
Tripping, stumbling or falling over
Feeling nauseous or vomiting
Increased impaired judgement
Very high dose
Severe memory loss
Problems breathing or slowed breathing
Increased risk of choking
Very low body temperature or blue skin/lips
How can you be safer when using alcohol?
Drinking alcohol affects everyone differently, but there are lots of ways you can reduce risk when drinking alcohol.
Stay hydrated by drinking a glass of water in between each alcoholic drink. Alcohol is dehydrating, and not drinking enough water can also make a hangover worse. Eating a meal high in fat before you drink can also help your body process alcohol more slowly.
Think about your own tolerance for alcohol- everyone is different. How much one person can drink and still feel sober can make another person feel unwell. Try not to base what you are drinking on how much the people around you are drinking. If you are new to drinking alcohol, consider starting with something with a lower alcohol content.
Avoid mixing alcohol with other drugs (including prescription or over the counter). Many of these can make effects of alcohol more unpleasant or unpredictable. If you take medication or supplements regularly, speak with your doctor or a health professional about how these might interact with alcohol.
Make a plan to keep yourself safe when you're drinking. Drinking can affect your ability to make decisions as it can change the way you judge situations. Planning how to get home safely, thinking about safe sex practices (using condoms to prevent STIs) and sticking with your mates are all helpful to think about before you start drinking. When out drinking, be aware of leaving your drink unattended or accepting drinks brought to you by people you do not know or trust.
For more information on how to be safer when using drugs and alcohol, see Safer using.
To order self-help workbooks and other free resources for safer use, see Resources.
One Erowid user reflects on their tolerance to alcohol:
“As a skinny girl, my tolerance was about 3 beers before I was feeling pretty drunk and would want to go to sleep. After a bad break up in ’04, I started drinking every day and saw my tolerance skyrocket.”
If you've had too much
What happens if you have too much alcohol?
You might have difficulty concentrating, feel agitated, dehydrated, aggressive, sick (headaches, nausea, sore stomach) and experience blurred vision.
- Focus on breathing – try taking slow, deep breaths.
- If you are able, call and talk to somebody you trust and ask them to help keep you calm.
- Do not take more alcohol or other drugs, as these can make you feel worse.
- Move to somewhere quiet – try to sit or lie down and do something relaxing.
- Drink water to stay hydrated.
If you have more severe symptoms, like severe nausea, vomiting, headaches or have injured yourself, call a doctor or Healthline (0800 611 116).
Hypothermia, pale and bluish skin and lips, unresponsiveness, difficulty breathing, choking (usually on vomit), seizures and loss of consciousness are signs of alcohol poisoning and are a medical emergency. Call 111.
What do comedowns from alcohol feel like, and how can you feel better?
When the effects of alcohol are wearing off or you are waking up after a night of drinking, you may find yourself experiencing the symptoms of a hangover. How bad the hangover from alcohol is and how quickly it comes on can depend on your individual body, how much you drank, how long you drank for, what you ate before drinking and whether you had alcohol with other drugs or medicines (prescription or over the counter).
You may feel tired, dehydrated, agitated, anxious and nauseous.
- Get plenty of rest and sleep.
- Remember to eat and drink plenty of water.
- Get moving to release feel-good brain chemicals.
- Reach out and talk with friends and whānau for support.
- Relax and do things that you enjoy to take your mind off not feeling well.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and other drugs.
- Practise mindfulness and deep breathing, and try writing down your thoughts and feelings.
If any of these symptoms intensify or don't go away then call a Doctor or Healthline 0800 611 116. They can talk you through the next steps
If your symptoms worsen or you are with somebody who:
- Is having trouble breathing
- Has chest pain
- Experiences severe vomiting
- Has a seizure
- Loses consciousness
Call 111. These are signs that something more serious is going on or that you have developed alcohol poisoning. You or the people around you should act quickly.
An Erowid user reflects on the effects of drinking too much alcohol:
"I woke up in the morning lying on my mate’s hard floor without a top on, lying in my own sick. The window was open and I was shivering like f*ck. I had the worst hangover I think anyone has ever experienced, I was not sure whether I was awake or not!”
What are the long-term effects of using alcohol?
If you drink alcohol often, especially in large amounts, it can have many impacts on your body and your brain. The effects of alcohol can range from mild to severe depending on how much you drink and how long you have been regularly using alcohol.
Alcohol can have effects on most parts of the body. It can affect your immune system, meaning that you are more likely to develop viral or bacterial infections. Alcohol has many effects on your heart – regular drinking can contribute to developing high blood pressure and a variety of heart diseases. Long-term use of alcohol has also been linked to developing oral, lung, pancreas, colon, breast and many other cancers. The liver is one of the most significantly affected parts of the body. Long-term alcohol use can cause alcoholic liver disease, alcoholic hepatitis and cirrhosis as well as liver cancer.
Alcohol can affect your brain and your mental health just as much as it can your physical health. Long-term use of alcohol can cause problems sleeping, it can affect your ability to remember and to learn new things (in severe cases, this is called Korsakoff's syndrome) and can damage the parts of the brain that are responsible for balance and coordination. Long-term use of alcohol can cause mood disorders like depression, anxiety and, in severe cases, psychosis. Some of the effects of alcohol on the brain may get better when someone stops drinking, but others can cause permanent damage.
There is no ‘safe’ level of alcohol use while pregnant. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can have impacts on the baby such as a low birthweight, they are more likely to be premature and they may have physical and mental developmental problems (called fetal alcohol spectrum disorder). Alcohol may also affect the baby when being breastfed as it can reduce milk supply, and some of the alcohol can be passed on through the milk. If you choose to drink, wait at least 2 hours for each standard drink before breastfeeding your baby.
How do you manage withdrawal from alcohol?
It can be hard to take a break from drinking, even if you only use alcohol socially, as it can be difficult to avoid in everyday life.
If you have been drinking regularly or for a long time, it can be even more challenging to stop using, especially if it happens suddenly. In some cases where alcohol use is heavy, it can be dangerous to stop drinking completely without the support of medical professionals.
If you have been drinking heavily, your doctor will help you to come up with a plan to cut down or stop slowly and may use other prescription medicines, such as benzodiazepines, to help with the unpleasant effects. There are also lots of other services that support people who would like to stop or cut back on their drinking.
- Feel depressed, anxious, confused and have difficulty sleeping
- Have headaches, feel nauseous and vomit or dry retch
- Feel very hot or very cold and be sensitive to sound and light
- Follow a tapering plan from a health professional to reduce your dose slowly.
- Consider counselling or support groups if feelings of anxiety and depression are getting worse.
- Lean on a support network of friends, family and professionals.
- Stick to a routine – waking up, eating well, keeping active and rewarding yourself with things that bring you joy.
- Practise mindfulness by writing down your feelings, doing breathing exercises or meditating.
If you have heart palpitations, experience fever, tremors, are severely or constantly nauseous, feel like your skin is crawling or have persistent insomnia, call a doctor or Healthline (0800 611 116).
Your doctor may be able to help with other medicines to help you get through withdrawal, or info about rehab or withdrawal clinics in your area – visit Health Point to see what services are available.
If you have chest pains, a high fever, severe vomiting, ongoing hallucinations, severe tremors, delirium, seizures and severe disorientation. Call 111.
These are signs you could be experiencing severe alcohol withdrawal. You or the people around you should act quickly.
See the 'Making changes' page for more information on how to Manage withdrawal from drugs and alcohol.
For more information on getting support for drug and alcohol use, see Finding support.
An Erowid user reflects on their regular use:
“I know that if I don’t stop drinking or cut down it will shorten my lifespan. How can I keep doing something even though I know it is and will kill me?”
Working and driving
How can alcohol affect your daily activities?
For some people, having one or two drinks can affect their ability to do their job or everyday activities. The effects of alcohol start very quickly after drinking, sometimes within 10 minutes, with your blood alcohol level peaking about 30–90 minutes after drinking. The effects of alcohol will increase as you continue to drink and your body’s blood alcohol level increases. If you have a dependence on alcohol, you may find some of the effects of alcohol impact your daily life, even if you aren’t drunk.
As alcohol can cause poor coordination, stumbling, vision problems, drowsiness and poor reaction time, it is unsafe to drive a car or operate heavy machinery when drinking. Jobs or activities that are safety sensitive like building or working with tools can be dangerous to do while you are intoxicated from alcohol.
Alcohol can also make you feel giddy and disinhibited and you may have a hard time concentrating, remembering and processing information, which means that interacting with others, especially at work, can become difficult.
Will alcohol show up on a drug test?
Alcohol is legal to buy, drink and make in New Zealand if you are over 18, which means that it may not be tested in the same way that other drugs are. Breath testing is the most likely way to be tested to see if you have consumed alcohol. If you are breath tested, you will be asked to blow or speak into a breathalyser machine, which measures the number of micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath. This is usually done by Police when you are driving but might be used in other places as well.
Alcohol can also be tested for using hair, urine, saliva (spit), sweat or blood. A blood test might be used to follow up a breath test for alcohol. This test measures the number of milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. Alcohol can be detected in your blood up to 12 hours after your last drink. Similarly, the level of alcohol in your body can be detected in your sweat for about the same amount of time. Less common is testing urine (which can detect alcohol for 10–12 hours), saliva (which can detect alcohol for 1–5 days) and hair (which can detect alcohol for up to 90 days).
Is alcohol legal?
Alcohol is legal to buy and make in New Zealand if you are 18 and over. You can bring alcohol from overseas into New Zealand, but there are limits on this. If you want to import alcohol in larger amounts, you must apply to do this through Customs. To sell alcohol, you must apply for a licence under the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012, but you can give alcohol to others who are 18 and over.
Some areas across New Zealand have a liquor ban, which means you cannot drink alcohol in public areas. If you are found to be drinking in these places, you can be fined or arrested by Police. Drivers aged 20 and under are not allowed to drink any alcohol and drive (you must have a blood alcohol level of zero). If you are over 20, the limit is 250 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath, and the blood alcohol limit is 50 milligrams per 100 ml of blood. If you are found to have levels that are over these limits when you are driving, you can be charged by Police with driving under the influence.
It is also illegal to buy alcohol for people under 18 (minors) or sell it to them unless you are their parent or guardian. If you are caught doing this, you can be fined by Police. If you work for a place that sells alcohol (like a supermarket or a bar), there are larger penalties for this. You can also be fined if you are caught buying alcohol and you are under 18, having a fake ID or drinking in a public area if you are under 18 and not accompanied by a parent or guardian.
To find out more about the law around legal and controlled drugs, including alcohol, see Drugs and the law.